'African Eyes’ showcases nomadic life in wilderness


Arbore woman from Ethiopia by Mariantonietta Peru. FILE PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Long before Mariantonietta Peru met the international travel writer, desert explorer, and camel caravan guide Michael Asher, she had a passion for the wilderness and the nomadic people that lived there.

She had been working for UNICEF as a communications officer, based initially in Sudan for three years before their fateful meeting in Somalia.

She had already spent years photographing the people as UNICEF addressed issues of famine and hunger in the region.

But now she was intent to travel to remote regions of Somalia that could only be reached by camel. Asher was said to be the best camel caravan guide, and indeed he was. But his next project was to trek across the Sahara 7,200 kilometres on foot and by camel from east to west without backup or technology of any kind.

Mariantonietta was enthralled. She asked if she could come along.

“I had to quit my job with UNICEF in order to go, but I had no problem with that,” she told BDLife at the opening of her current photographic showcase at Tribal Gallery in Loresho entitled ‘African Eyes’.

She is also the only woman known to have made that journey. But that was only the beginning of their treks around the region.

The elegant black and white photographs date back to the mid-1980s after she left UNICEF. The exceptions are snaps like the ‘Beja Girl, Sudan’, which won her first photo awards.

Since then, she and Asher have travelled all over Africa together, mainly to remote areas where they have met nomads who are less known than the Maasai or Turkana.


Erg Chebbi, Morocco by Mariantonietta Peru. FILE PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The husband-and-wife team share many interests including their both being fluent in Arabic. She has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Arabic studies.

And he has been speaking it throughout his travels. It has been useful, especially when they have ventured into remote areas, among little-known peoples like the Shilluk of South Sudan, the Hamar of Ethiopia, the Mucawona of Angola, and even the nomadic Tajouj Gabra of Kenya who Mariantonietta met in the Chalbi Desert.

Asked if she saw any correlation between her work at that of Africa Adorned author Angela Fisher, she said her interest were in Africa unadorned, meaning men and women in their natural nomadic lifestyles, without need to adorn themselves to be beautiful.

Yet virtually all her portraits are of people who have either scarification or bead and metal accessories worn around their head and necks.

The most stunning is a Rashaida woman immigrant originally from eastern Sudan. She has on a mask or burqa covering her whole face apart from her eyes made out of silver filigree.

“Her people are originally Bedoins from Saudi Arabia who historically have regularly crisscrossed the Red Sea between both countries,” explains Mariantonietta.

“They are best known for being smugglers of things, mainly from the mainland to Saudi,” elaborates Asher whose books often make reference to indigenous peoples of Africa.

But two of his best-known books are about TE Lawrence, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and his seminal biography of the renowned British explorer, travel writer, and decorated military officer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, whose life story he was researching when he met his future wife.

Together the two of them have travel all over Africa, but the images in her current show feature mainly women from Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Morocco, and Namibia.

Her three men are from Ethiopia, one from Arbore, who she calls ‘Sindbad’, the other from Hamar covered in beads and metal wires, and a third from the Mursi people who she named Narcissus man because she thought “he was so beautiful,” Mariantonietta says.

Then, there is one Shilluk herdsboy who is from South Sudan.

Otherwise, her nomadic women come from Kababish in Sudan, from Afar, Suri, Arbore, and Dassanach in Ethiopia, Himba in Namibia and Macawona in Angola.

Some of her images have been taken as recently as in the last six months while others were pre-pandemic. But always, she has gotten to know her subjects first.


Turkana woman in Kenya, by Mariantonietta Peru. FILE PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“I wanted the capture their eyes because I believe eyes are windows into the soul, revealing in these people a sense of authentic human-ness rarely seen in our artificial mechanised world,” she told BDLife.

She says she also aims to capture a feeling of “connection with self, with others, and with the Divine that nature- based people have, but that we in the industrial world have largely lost.”

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